How Robotics will transform the 21st Century
The progress of human technology has deeply affected the course of evolution and the life of mankind. The Industrial Revolution marked a major shift in human history producing an unprecedented, sustained growth of income, a rise in the population levels, and an initial improvement in general standards of living. Then came electricity which slowly spread its way to even the poorest households. By the mid-twentieth century, the widespread availability of private transport vehicles, electric household appliances and even plane travel had a further massive impact on humanity, leading to a significant improvement in healthcare, working environments and quality of life.
Since the late 1950, our lives have been characterised by the change from mechanical and analogue electronic technology to digital electronics with the rise to popularity of electric typewriters, transistor radios and myriad other electric devices in hospitals, offices and households. By the 1970s, the development of computers was in full swing and a decade later the first popular home computers began to be commercialised, truly opening the doors to the ICT Era dominated by the Internet, telematics, social networks and always-on, always-connected society.
As we steadily progress towards a brave new world of automation in which refrigerators will take care of food shopping, ovens will cook our dinners autonomously, and even our vehicles will require no drivers, we are not just evolving in terms of technological prowess, but also driving a further significant improvement in our life and health quality.
Researchers and futurists claim that the next revolution – the same that will be characterised by the introduction of self-driving cars and the development smart cities – will be a robotics revolution, perhaps better described as the rise to power of artificial intelligence. Indeed, it will not be a world of clunky robots as portrayed in 20th-century science fiction, but interconnected, machine-learning systems of sentient devices, sensors and telematics systems composing artificial intelligence platforms that will assist and drive just about every facet of human activity.
Sensors will become ubiquitous. They will be used to monitor traffic congestion, weather and pollution. Biometric sensors will be used to track our health conditions and vital parameters, further contributing to extending humankind’s life range. Indeed, electronic tattoo prototypes, developed from elastomeric nano-films, can already be applied to the human body to control digital devices or monitor our health conditions, even releasing active ingredients directly into our skin in emergency situations (i.e., reviving car accident victims who have fainted). The printed circuits embedded in the tattoos are so thin that they are virtually indistinguishable from traditional tattoos and just as comfortable.
As our knowledge of chemistry and biology continues to progress and merges with artificial intelligence and digital interfaces, science is beginning to tackle an all new realm: that of artificial organisms. These are not just body replacements, such as artificial hearts and hips, or the use of cell cultivations to produce new human skin or even body parts such as ears, but true biological components – biological robots – that can be controlled like a digital device.
In particular, smart materials, which react to mechanical, electrical, optical, thermal and a variety of other stimulations, are one of the pillars for the future of artificial organisms and soft robotics. They may change colour, shape or even electrical and chemical properties based on how they are stimulated. In fact, medical robotics is studying biodegradable and biocompatible polymers that can be used to explore, mend and boost the human body from the inside.
On the outside, soft robotics promises to reinvent and greatly exceed the functions of electronic tattoos. In fact, these futuristic devices could be used not only to regulate body temperatures, create smart bandages that promote quick healing and/or increase our microbial resistance, but also to create lightweight, soft exoskeletons that can help the aged and the injured to move around more easily.
In terms of the environment, bio-integration and soft biodegradable robotics means that robots used for rescue missions in biological, chemical and physical hazard zones will no longer pose a further issue, but can be left to decay into the environment, just as medical robots can simply dissolve in our bloodstreams after having completed their mission.
Moreover, soft robots pose no physical menace of injury to humans. Today’s industries keep humans and robots strictly separated, but in the future soft robots will be able to collaborate with man at work, at home and in all leisure pursuits.
At present, we have no certainties about how soft robotics will be applied to vehicles, but the future impact of this technology will certainly be momentous, dwarfing anything we have seen so far. And as we prepare to face a world that will be transformed by telematics and self-driving vehicles, augmented reality applied to everyday life, and a far greater awareness of everything happening around us in real-time, we may imagine how primitive even fully autonomous self-driving cars will one day appear.
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